Tears from Astana

The campaign to have Leigh Griffiths banned from next week’s Champion League Qualifier has failed. UEFA threw out FC Astana’s complaint and despite the social media campaign they ran, I’ve yet to see this as a red card incident.

Firstly, Igor Shitov deliberately obstructed Leigh’s run into the box, extending his arms backwards. The two entered into a tussle with the Celtic striker ‘winning’ and Shitov going to ground.

Griffiths appears to raise is hands during the tussle but so too does Shitov. At no time is there a punch in the footage that I have seen.

The smart thing to do of course is to keep your hands down but neither player did. Shitov went to ground easily and Griffiths was shown a yellow card.

For a player whose team were happy to dish it out for over 90 minutes, it is somewhat ironic that Astana chose to cry wolf. The whole incident was handbags and the other way to look at it was that Shitov was trying to get Griffiths sent off.

It’s a desperate quest by a the Kazakh Champions and one which will stir things up for the return leg at Celtic Park. Astana make the long journey to Glasgow with the only disadvantage for them being the time difference.

The first leg kicked off at 3pm Celtic Park time but for Astana it will be like playing in the early hours of the morning. Even still, Celtic must be vigilant against the attacking threat posed by Astana and of course, their tough tactics and play acting.

Astana got away with quite a few challenges in Kazakhstan. Most of that was down to the Italian referee so we can only hope the official for the second leg won’t be so lenient.

I don’t expect an easy game despite playing at home and on grass. The job is half done and we have an away goal but we need to be sharp and take our chances.

With the turnaround seen in Kazakhstan, I feel confident in the players and Brendan Rodgers to step things up. Saturday will allow some other players to get a run out but no risks will be taken with injuries and fitness currently affecting the squad.

Barcelona and Celtic meet in Dublin and despite the level of opposition in this International Champions Cup match, Brendan Rodgers won’t be putting too many players at risk. Kolo Toure is said to be remaining in Glasgow to work on his fitness.

Whether that means he won’t be available for Wednesday as well remains to be seen. I can only imagine he would be pitched in against Astana if Mikael Lustig, Eoghan O’Connell or Efe Ambrose get injured.

Should Celtic progress to the Champions League Play Off round on Wednesday night, further moves and changes are likely. Things are moving forward a bit at a time as I expected they might.

We are seeing some progress for the first time in a long time. That has to continue in the games that lie ahead.

Hail! Hail!

Stevie Mac

Honours even

​So Celtic began this Champions League qualifier away from home the way we’re well accustomed to as supporters. Giving away cheap goals is a European trait for the Hoops and goes hand in hand with calamitous defending. 

The goal scored by FC Astana in the 20th minute was an open invitation from a corner. Up stepped Logvinenko to head home the first goal of the game unmarked and unchallenged.

There are a number of areas you can examine for this error. All of which play a role.

Craig Gordon came for the ball and failed to collect it. This was mainly down to the presence of an opponent between himself and the ball.

In that wide open space there was no Celtic player to speak of either. That was why Gordon came for it in the first place.

If this gap was as a result of zonal marking then it was breached. Much criticism has been levelled at Celtic for deploying such a tactic, but it is widely used in the game and this isn’t the first Celtic manager to utilise it either.

It could also be agrued that Eoghan O’Connell wasn’t doing his zonal job. I’ve much confidence in the youngster and if I am being honest, acquitted himself well for the 90 plus minutes played bar a lapse in concentration late on in game and this goal.

FC Astana played it hard and fast from the start though. Celtic were on occasion showing signs of setting up a shot on goal but were disappointing in the last third.

The linkup play was poor in the first half and the midfield weren’t protecting the defence either. I wasn’t totally surprised to see Brendan Rodgers go with Lustig, Ambrose and O’Connell and overall they did a decent job as one unit.

The big change was reshaping the midfield in the second half. Callum McGregor wasn’t at his best and Stuart Armstrong was equally unimpressive before being replaced.

As the second half unfolded, so too did the changes. Moussa Dembele was replaced by Nir Bitton, James Forrest for Armstrong and Tom Rogic for McGregor.

This made a difference and even Scott Brown was getting forward. This was largely due to Bitton’s presence. 

Forrest was getting some joy down the left and Rogic’s linkup play was filling the void. It would be the superb performance of Patrick Roberts though that would help unlock the Astana defence and provide the one shot on target Celtic managed all afternoon.

Following a mix of determination and skill Roberts robbed his marker before playing in Leigh Griffiths. He took one touch – which at the time I thought was one too many – and with the second found its way calmly into the net.

It was a goal Celtic worked hard for and I felt were capable of getting even in the first half. Astana were stunned and Celtic were on the hunt for  winner but with time ticking away it finished a 1-1 draw.

Brendan Rodgers will be pleased with the attitude of his players, especially after going a goal down. With an away goal, a good away performance and a positive response from his squad, the second leg at Celtic Park is looking good for progression.

The job is far from done though. We saw how quickly Astana got forward and Celtic will need to be alert to that on home territory. 

The expectation will be for Celtic to flex their own muscle at Paradise. The stage is set for players to make a name for themselves.

Moussa Dembele, looking almost uninterested at Celtic’s equaliser whilst sat on the bench, should be aiming to break his duck at Celtic Park next week. There are high hopes for the free scoring youngster and where better to do it than in front of your home crowd and help take your club into the next round?

Celtic have done the hard bit and with a depleted defence. They did a good job, even Efe, though many will have overlooked his failure to deal with the square ball that led to Lustig knocking it out for a corner.

The result of that was of course the free header that produced FC Astana’s goal. For now, we have a good away result and by the time Astana come visiting we could have Kolo Toure available for selection.

All in all, a good repsonse. Saturday will see Celtic head out to Dublin to face Barcelona in the International Champions Cup.

It’s another road trip we could do without but it is an opportunity for some players to get a run out. Toure will be one of those players and will help put him in contention for Wednesday.

Hail! Hail!

Stevie Mac 

Patience and discipline pay off for the play-offs

Well, the game played out as expected last night. Even if my nerves were tested at times, this was a case of job done.

Qarabağ played exactly as I imagined they would. The big surprise for me was that Ronny Deila deployed holding tactics.

This was the right move away from home though. Qarabağ’s European results in recent years demonstrated they were not an attacking side home or away.

Although they offered more in attack in Baku last night, Celtic also allowed them more of the game. They were the ones chasing a goal to stay in the tie but their tactic appears to be drawing out their opponents and hit on the break.

Celtic didn’t play ball and both the defence and defensive midfield played a blinder. Our attack was sporadic and largely ineffective but this was not a game we had to win.

As I said from the first leg, Qarabağ make good use of the ball and postion themselves well. It’s a quality they can build on for sure but Celtic played them at their own game and even though I would have felt more comfortable with a goal we came out on top.

Bitton and Brown were fantastic, chasing down the ball, breaking up the play, taking the heat off our defence and even trying to create moves for our attack. The defence were equally effective and played a key role in keeping the goal protected and moving the ball forward and despite Gordon flapping at one cross he pulled off the save of the match.

Lustig and van Dijk were their usual selves, performing how and when it matters. I’ll single out Boyata though as I criticised him in a previous blog.

I thought he stepped up his game last night, stood firm throughout the match and kept his focus. On the left Izaguirre played a more defensive role than he normally plays but be coped well over all.

Sadly our attack was static and once more Ciftci was lacking pace and movement. Mackay-Steven, Armstrong and Johansen didn’t play badly but they didn’t over commit themselves such were the tactics deployed.

Griffiths (67), Commons (79) and Forrest (84) kept things moving as the game moved into the final third. It was hot, it was late and legs were getting tired.

All in all I think this was a test of Celtic’s patience and character. To stay disciplined and organised despite the temptation to attack showed some real maturity for what is a reasonably young team.

It wouldn’t be right if I didn’t say something about match referee Martin Strömbergsson. Tbe Swedish official was diabolical.

It’s fair to say I was tense going into this match. His blatant refusal to award stonewall free kicks to Celtic though was astonishing.

I stopped counting after 7 denials. There must have been at least double that amount by the time the final whistle came.

As it was it took until the 76th minute for the Swede to award one if those stonewallers. It wasn’t our first free kick of the game but it was the first given in an attacking area of the park, all of which were previously ignored.

In the end Celtic set out their stall to counter Qarabağ’s counter attacking style of play. Without the referee’s assistance Celtic are in the bowl for Friday’s draw.

Maccabi Tel Aviv (Israel), Partizan (Serbia), Malmö FF (Sweden), Skënderbeu Korçë (Albania) or Astana (Kazakhstan) are Celtic’s potential opponents. At first glance I’d prefer the Israeli side or the Albanian’s not for location, just for our chances.

It will be another step up for Ronny Deila and his players as the expectations become more real. European football is secure until December but the Champions League is where we want to be.

Until Friday.

Hail! Hail!

Stevie Mac